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Pygmalion at the Abbey Theatre (Review)

I think it’s safe to say that George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has had quite the impact on popular culture. Even those unfamiliar with the original 1912 play written by the great Irish playwright will know the basic structure of the story, filtered down through countless reruns of My Fair Lady and She’s All That. It’s hard to argue that anything in Shaw’s impressive back catalogue is quite as crowd-pleasing, but never at the expense of being sharp and provocative. The fact that it’s turning out to be next-to-impossible to get a seat at the Abbey’s run of the play indicates that the work has lost none of its appeal.

Doolittle doctored?

Even in the most drab and formulaic productions, Shaw’s text would sparkle. The plot follows, in case you need reminding, the story of two gentlemen who place a wager as to whether they can make an “artificial duchess” out of a lowly flower girl. Shaw takes every opportunity to lampoon the pretensions of “middle class morality”, while never seemed especially cruel or vindictive. The play is a well-rounded criticism of British class culture, making sure that no section of society is spared its rather sharp wit. One can also detect hints of women’s suffrage in the tale, drafted in the early part of the twentieth century.

It’s telling that the play is still as powerful today, where most of the criticisms about the academic nature of the middle class’ interest in poor and disadvantaged continue to land quite close to the mark. It’s easy to imagine the play could be adapted for the present day with minimal disruption to Shaw’s source material, and still pack a powerful punch. That’s just good writing, and helps point to how the story has endured as a classic for a century at this stage.

A first class production?

The production, however, is fairly traditional. It’s absolutely lavish, even by the superb standards of the Abbey. The set designs and transitions are something to behold as large and complex structures fold over and disassemble like some well-oiled machine. Hell, the very first scene transition, using a light source and shadows projected against the white curtain, earned a round of applause from the audience. You know you’re doing something right when you can earn that sort of audience appreciation for simply moving the set pieces around.

The cast is wonderfully effective, with particular praise reserved for the two leads. Charlie Murphy makes a rather wonderful debut on the Abbey stage as Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl who becomes the subject of a wager to convert her from a commoner to royalty using the raw power of phonetics. Seriously, that doesn’t happen often enough these days, if you ask me. Murphy manages the rather demanding vocal aspects of the role (alternating between street and posh with a smooth and considered ease), as well as giving Doolittle remarkable personality and vulnerability (as well as, when the occasion calls for it, strength).

Eliza goes a long way?

Risteárd Cooper is charmingly effective as Higgins, the mad scientist (phoneticist) of the piece, creating his own sort of accented Frankenstein’s monster. Rumours are that Higgins was, if not based directly on, at least heavily inspired by Henry Sweet – a companion of the writer who shared the habit of sending postcards in his own shorthand and being markedly short-tempered. Cooper plays Higgins in a style that reminds me quite a bit of John Cleese, at least in the early scenes.

It works surprisingly well, if only because a rogue phonetic professor seeking to upset the established social order by encouraging class mobility seems like a perfect Monty Python idea, not to mention the fact that Higgins seems just as arrogant and self-centred as Basil Fawlty on his worst day. As the play progresses and the character develops, Cooper layers on a bit more to his interpretation of the character, and he pulls it off.

A production of note?

Pygmalion isn’t revolutionary theatre or anything so bold. It won’t redefine what you expect from an Abbey production, or give you newfound confidence in Irish theatre. What it is, however, is a remarkably well-produced adaptation of a beloved play with a strong cast and a wonderful design to it. It’s a night of solidly entertaining theatre. What more could you ask for?

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